100 years of coal mining in Harlan County

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 21, 2011 

TERRY'S FORK — On Aug. 25, 1911, a Friday, a Louisville & Nashville locomotive steamed away from a tipple in a hollow in Harlan County with a load of coal bound for Western Kentucky, and the county changed dramatically, forever.

It was the first commercial coal shipment by rail out of the mountainous county.

The coming of the railroad sparked a feverish boom as out-of-state industrialists and investors, and some homegrown businessmen, rushed to develop the rich coalfield, with its high-quality seams nine feet thick in places.

Within a few short years, a sparsely populated place that had long been defined by subsistence farming was transformed into an industrial society largely controlled by the coal industry.

The population tripled by 1920 as people poured into Harlan County for work, and doubled again by 1930.

Coal production of 25,814 tons in 1910 shot up to 384,427 tons in 1912, then to 1.2 million tons in 1914, and eventually climbed to more than 15 million tons by the late 1920s.

The coal industry has dominated the local economy for a century, providing jobs in a place where they are scarce. There was a price, however, including the deaths of hundreds of miners who were blown up, crushed or suffocated. Others died more slowly from the coal dust in their lungs.

The number of deaths dropped dramatically over time with improved safety measures, technology and oversight. There were two mining-related deaths in Harlan County last year, according to federal regulators.

In the century since that first rail shipment, miners have blasted and dug nearly a billion tons of coal from the mountains of Harlan County.

As the county marks that anniversary, though, there are a lot of questions about what is to come during its second century of coal production.

Family foresight

Commercial coal production began in Kentucky long before the Civil War, but the Harlan area was among the last major deposits to be developed because companies built rail lines to other spots first.

During the three decades before the railroad came to Harlan County, industrialists, investors and speculators — many from out of state — had bought enormous tracts of timber and coal land throughout the region, or leased the mineral rights.

Many landowners in Eastern Kentucky, unfamiliar with its potential value, sold their control of great reserves of coal for as little as 50 cents to $1 an acre, according to some historians.

Kentenia Corp., a company based in the Northeast, once controlled more than 100 square miles of land in Harlan and Bell counties, according to an entry in the Kentucky Encyclopedia by James S. Greene III, a school administrator and historian in Harlan.

The first coal shipped out of Harlan County, however, came from land owned by a local businessman, Jesse M. Blanton.

The family story is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped by Blanton's farm when the future president went to Harlan County with a team surveying coal properties during the early 1900s, said Mark Bailey, Blanton's great-grandson.

Roosevelt asked Blanton what he thought of a steep mountain in the distance as an investment for Roosevelt.

Blanton dismissed it, and Roosevelt rode off, but the local entrepreneur actually realized the potential value of the land. He sold other property to buy part of the mountain and later leased it to a coal company to mine because he knew the railroad was coming, Bailey said.

"He outfoxed the future president," said Bailey.

At the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Bailey said, Blanton's monthly income from coal properties was $7,000. That would be roughly $95,000 today.

His descendants still own land Blanton bought, and it has produced income for every generation.

Company towns

As in other counties, companies quickly built entire towns in Harlan County to house miners after the railroad came.

A subsidiary of U.S. Steel, for instance, built Lynch in 1917 at the foot Big Black Mountain, the highest peak in Kentucky.

Where there had been only scattered small farms, the city's population quickly grew to 10,000, equaling that of the entire county before the boom.

Most of the people who flooded into the county for jobs were from nearby counties, but the miners included African-Americans from the South and European immigrants.

"It was just like a magnet," Greene said in interview.

The companies controlled every aspect of their towns, some even paying miners in scrip, company money used to buy goods at the company commissary.

The miner "had no voice in community affairs or working conditions, and he was dependent upon the benevolence of the employer to maintain his rate of pay," Ronald D. Eller, a professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote in Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers, his book on the industrialization of the Appalachian South.

The industrial age brought what a number of historians have described as wrenching change, with thousands of people who had been independent farmers suddenly living in crowded camps owned by someone else, working for a wage for the first time.

The transformation also brought much greater access to material goods, as well as doctors, schools and other amenities. The quality of camp housing varied but was better than what many miners previously had.

But the changes also produced "serious social disorganization," historian John W. Hevener said in his 1978 book Which Side Are You On? — the title of a famous labor song from the county.

With guns and alcohol widely available to people adjusting to a new order and used to settling disagreements for themselves, bloodshed was common.

The homicide rate in Harlan County in the 1920s was the highest in the nation — twice that of Florida, the most violent state — with 50 homicides a year, Hevener's book reported.

And the divorce rate in the county rose 80 percent from 1922 to 1932, according to a study Eller cited in his book.

Bitter labor battles

Harlan County had some of the most widely reported labor problems of the 1930s, when violence during bitter fights over union organizing cemented the nickname "Bloody Harlan."

Coal operators used their control over the county's economy and politics to beat back union efforts in the 1920s and 30s, evicting union members from company houses, blacklisting them and paying the salaries of sheriff's deputies who supported the companies' efforts and intimidated miners.

The coal boom already had stalled when the Great Depression crippled the county's coal industry after 1929.

From 1929 to 1931, the average Harlan County miner's annual wage — already lower than those of miners in unionized northern coal states — dropped from $1,235 to $749. The number of children dying of diseases related to malnutrition rose and would have been higher if not for a feeding program the Quakers launched in late 1931, according to Hevener's book.

"We live on beans and bread. We don't get no dinner," one woman was quoted as saying in Harlan Miners Speak, a 1932 book by a committee that took testimony on labor violence at the request of the Communist-backed National Miners Union.

By 1932, a third of the county's mines had closed, according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter.

Amid the desperate conditions, both sides used violence in the labor struggle.

One of the bloodiest events occurred in May 1931, when union miners ambushed a convoy of cars escorting a non-union miner near Evarts.

Three deputies and one miner died in the shootout, Hevener wrote.

Changing times

Better economic times returned with the World War II demand for coal, but the industry continued to undergo major changes in the decades after the war because of technology and market forces, going through cycles of boom and decline.

That meant big changes for Harlan County.

Demand dropped after the railroads stopped using coal to drive locomotives, and factories switched to oil and natural gas for their needs.

Production in Harlan County fell throughout the 1950s, hitting a near 50-year low in 1960 of 1.3 million tons, state records show.

The drop in production meant a big drop in jobs and population as well.

From 1950 to 1970, people left to find work, causing the county's population to drop by nearly half, U.S. Census figures show.

Coal companies pulled out of the business of owning towns as large rail mines were replaced by smaller mines. The companies sold the houses and closed the company stores.

U.S. Steel sold its houses in Lynch to residents in the early 1960s.

Growing use of machines to mine coal also meant the companies needed fewer employees. Employment in Kentucky's underground mines fell 70 percent from 1950 to 1965; in Harlan County, mining employment dropped from 13,619 to 2,433 in that time, according to A New History of Kentucky.

A Middle Eastern oil embargo caused a spike in coal demand during the 1970s and 80s, and mining employment rose to 4,419 in 1981, the most recent employment peak.

There were 1,780 people employed in mining in the county in 2009, an increase of 195 from the year before, according to federal data.

Looking beyond coal

The coal industry doesn't have as tight a grip on Harlan County as it once did.

However, Mark Bell, president of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce, estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of the jobs in the county are tied directly to the industry.

"It's the foundation on which the economic livelihood of the community functions," Bell said.

Still, the county is relatively poor and the population has declined steadily for decades, falling to 29,278 in 2010 — the lowest level since before 1920.

The loss in population has fed the longtime interest in diversifying the county's economy.

Many residents think highway access will have to be improved for the county's economy to grow.

But Eller says Harlan and other Appalachian counties need a different, broader concept of what constitutes economic development, and how to achieve it, than the ideas local and state leaders have traditionally held — building industrial parks in hopes of luring factories, and investing in coal.

Harlan County has potential for jobs in agriculture, tourism and other fields, he said.

"The problem is we've got to redesign the economy" to reach that potential, Eller said.

Surface mining conflict

The controversies around the coal industry have shifted.

The United Mine Workers of America finally organized the county during the late 1930s, but its influence later waned, and there are no UMW mines in the county now. It's been almost 40 years since there was serious unrest and violence over attempts to unionize a mine in Harlan County.

These days, the most emotional fight relates to mountaintop mining, in which coal companies blast the tops off mountains to reach coal seams.

That controversy has caused conflict different from the labor upheavals "but not far removed in terms of emotional intensity," John D. Hennen, a professor at Morehead State University, said in his introduction to a new edition of Harlan Miners Speak.

There is less mountaintop mining in Harlan County than in some other counties in Eastern Kentucky. In 2009, underground production in the county totaled 7.5 million tons compared to 2.9 million tons produced by surface mining, according to the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

The ratio was much closer in some coal counties. In Pike County, for instance, there was 9.3 million tons of underground production and 7.1 million tons mined from the surface.

Harlan County is no stranger to the fight over mountaintop mining, however.

Some residents and local officials are objecting to a coal company's application for a surface mine near Lynch, the historic mining town.

The concern is that the mine would hurt the chances of developing tourism based on the town's beautiful location and history.

"We want 'em to leave us something," said Carl Shoupe, a former miner and union organizer who is a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes surface mining.

"It's a payday next week for 12 men," he said of a surface mine, "but what is it for our grandchildren?"

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said a lot of variables will influence the second century of coal production in Harlan County.

Those include environmental regulation, technological changes and the growth of demand in China and India.

But the projected growth in energy needs means coal will be a key part of meeting those needs for a long time, Bissett said.

"I strongly believe that in 100 years, we'll be mining coal in Eastern Kentucky," he said. "The question will be how, and how much?"

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